Why was The Hague your first stop?

This was a question I was asked many-a-times. Well folks, (no I do not use that word in real life) I am a law student. Ta-dah! This law student decided to participate in an International Humanitarian Law course in The Hague. It was an opportunity to immerse myself in the laws that govern armed conflicts. Read my essay below for a sense of this area of the law.

The Hague. The name of the city itself sounds pretty daunting; however, it turned out to be a city of encouragement. To clarify, The Hague is internationally recognized as not only a legal capital, but the “City of Peace and Justice” throughout the world. It hosts various tribunals including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. I was able to study International Humanitarian Law and its intersections with similar areas of study under the guidance of distinguished professionals from throughout the world in The Hague, The Netherlands.

With the aid of Dean Amann and the Dean Rusk International Law Center staff, I was able to register for the “International Humanitarian Law in Theory and Practice” course in The Hague. Before this opportunity had presented itself, I had never heard of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  Upon my initial research and first-day introduction to this discipline, I learned that IHL is essentially the law that regulates war. Some of the goals of this discipline include regulating warfare among combatants, or people participating in hostilities, and protecting civilians, those who are not participating in hostilities. The Geneva Conventions, Hague Conventions, Additional Protocols, various treaties, and customary international law are considered to be the primary sources of International Humanitarian law.

IHL grew out of the efforts of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, who worked to provide treatment and care for wounded soldiers after he witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Before this time, wounded soldiers were generally left on the battlefield to die.  As a result of Dunant’s observations, he eventually formed the International Center for the Red Cross (ICRC), which is recognized throughout the world by emblems such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal. The idea of emblems was brought to fruition as a result of the first Geneva Convention in 1864 because the participants thought it was necessary to have a neutral sign of protection that would be internationally recognized. The red cross on a white flag was selected as the first emblem of the Red Cross societies because it was the exact inverse of Switzerland’s flag, which is a neutral country. While these emblems are indicative of the ICRC, they also operate in a protective capacity. During an armed conflict, these symbols serve to alert armed conflict participants to the fact that the person(s) wearing this emblem are protected from attack. Some of these volunteers include medical officials who serve to render medical support on an indiscriminate basis, meaning that every person participating in a hostility is entitled to treatment. Today, the ICRC operates as the controlling authority under International Humanitarian Law according to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. The ICRC works in conjunction with Red Cross societies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to provide assistance and medical support throughout the world.

I understood this concept the best when I participated in a paintball simulation of conflict situations, in which there were two teams who sought to capture the opposing team’s flag in order to “win the battle.” Without any advance notice, ICRC players would enter the field to assist “wounded” players. Sometimes the ICRC players would just wear an arm-band with the Red Cross emblem. It was up to the players to differentiate between the soldiers and ICRC volunteers, which sometimes proved difficult when the ICRC representatives wore an opposing party’s colors in addition to the neutral armband, or when the representatives carried guns. In the end, the exercise served to demonstrate the importance of the emblems’ indicative and protective use and the difficulties the ICRC organization faces in armed conflicts.

Some of the difficulties that the ICRC faces on a reoccurring basis in trying to render International Humanitarian Assistance involve respect for International Humanitarian Law. Some of the measures that the ICRC uses to help ensure that International Humanitarian Law is fully respected includes educating those involved or likely to be involved in armed conflicts such as militaries. Some of the reasons that parties to a conflict choose not to respect IHL involves the fact that IHL principles conflicts with their own goals. Furthermore, there is also the misperception that IHL is a Western idea, which is counter to some armed groups’ beliefs because they want to reject foreign values. Lastly, IHL is sometimes difficult to implement because some parties believe that there are too many rules to comply. Additionally, some of the other difficulties that this organization faces involves the dissemination and translation of the IHL materials, misuse of the emblems by combatants who are seeking to deceptively use the protective status in order to further their own party’s goals, and prosecution of those who violate IHL. To combat this sort of behavior, the main enforcement mechanism that the ICRC uses to guarantee compliance and respect of IHL include sanctioning those who violate the law with criminal and other forms of disciplinary action.

In the process of one week’s instruction in International Humanitarian Law, I quickly learned that the Red Cross is more than just an organization that seeks blood donations. It is essentially a life-line in many regards and not just to those who are on the battlefield.

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